Greek elections: channeling crucial questions for Europe

Press release

Interview with Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH Vice President, ahead of Greece’s general elections.

On 18 December 2014, FIDH and its member organization the Hellenic League for Human Rights launched in Athens a new report documenting the impact that the economic crisis and austerity policies agreed between the Greek government and the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank, International Monetary Fund) had on human rights in Greece. The report, based on a fact-finding mission conducted by the two organizations in the country earlier in 2014, exposes the devastating impact that these policies have had on economic, social, civil and political rights and points to the responsibilities that both Greece and its international lenders bear for such violations. As Greeks are set to go to the polls on Sunday for general elections, all eyes are turned towards the country where the die risks to be cast on what lays not only before Greece but the entire eurozone and the Troika that rules over it. Against this background, we had a talk with FIDH Vice President Dimitris Christopoulos:

FIDH: In your report released in December, you expose the devastating consequences that austerity policies have had on some fundamental human rights, including the rights to health, work, free expression and public protest. What impact did these violations have on the campaign for elections that started in December 2014 and which is still ongoing? Have any violations been established? Which role did these violations and the austerity policies from which they derive play in the current political crisis?

Dimitris Christopoulos : You raise two separate questions here. Let me clarify that democracy in this country and particularly elections as its most solemn manifestation is something sacred. And this has to be linked not so much to the Athenian antiquity and its legacy, as many Greeks and non-Greeks like to believe, but rather to our recent political history. Let me recall that it is only in 1974 that we had our first ‘free and fair’ elections in this country, right after the end of the colonels’ regime. So, no one – and I am adamant here – has dared to violate the rules of the election game ever since. Another thing is addressing human rights violations in relation to the current political crisis in Greece, independently of the elections.

Still, before getting to answer this question, let me challenge, in the first place, the term “political crisis’’. If we refer to the repercussions that the economic crisis had on the political institutions of this country, indeed one may refer to a long-lasting political crisis in the sense of the consolidation of a legitimacy deficit of the Greek political elites during the economic crisis. And of course, this legitimacy deficit has much to do with the way the Greek governments dealt (or rather did not deal) with the human rights impact of the austerity measures they agreed to impose on the country in exchange for two consecutive bailouts, as detailed in our report.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a stricto sensu political crisis in the sense of the electoral inability to form a government, that we have witnessed in 2011-2012 when the country changed governments three times and two legislative elections took place in less than 9 months. Greece is not facing a similar situation today.

FIDH: As a human rights expert and defender, what are the main recommendations that you would address to future Greek MPs?

DC : I would mention the following :

First, I would suggest they consider the consequences of current and future policies for what they really are, ie human rights violations, and not as the –generally accepted– abolition of vested interests. Also, I would ask them to assess those policies’ consequences on human rights so as to avoid them, where possible, or at least mitigate them. There were many shortcomings in the Greek society before the crisis begun. So, the point is not to ‘return’ to a pre-crisis situation but rather to design new human rights strategies that will best address the needs arising from the current situation.

Ever since the crisis started I’ve been saying that the problem is not really austerity as such. I would even support a fair, equal and proportionate “austerity” as resources are indeed limited. However, what we have experienced in Greece and in all the countries where austerity policies have been implemented, is an increase in social inequality and an exacerbation of pre-existing imbalances that austerity has channeled and magnified. This is unacceptable from a human rights perspective and must be stopped. Assessing any policy’s potential impact on human rights and society to ensure compliance with international standards and integrating human rights into any debate or negotiation over policies and programmes that are likely to have an impact on them could be a first step in this direction.

Second, they should defend a certain level of human dignity, and the corresponding minimum essential levels guaranteeing access to certain rights – such as the rights to health or work for instance- that must always be preserved, including in a crisis situation, and below which no austerity policy should possibly go. In Greece, the last years have seen a real humanitarian crisis whose effects should be dealt with as soon as possible. We are already late, as evidence gathered in our report shows.

Third, I urge them to defend democracy against the threat posed by the far-right and the Neo-Nazis. The ‘Golden Dawn trial’ is going to start soon and it will be the ideal opportunity for Greek democracy to show that, after all, it can protect itself from its enemies in a way that does not abrogate but rather respects the rule of law.
In brief, I would recommend they read the FIDH/HLHR report ‘Downgrading rights.
The cost of austerity in Greece”. It is a very helpful tool to better understand the situation in Greece and for policy-makers to draw inspiration in shaping their political agenda.

FIDH: Do you think that the new parliament that will be elected would be ableto revert by itself the trend that your findings denounced back in December?

DC : No. There is nothing today which can be done alone by a new Parliament and a new government in Greece, as anywhere else in Europe. Greece, as other European countries, is a res publica debitura. A country dependent on its debts. However, the way this crisis has been dealt with from the start ended up worsening the problem it was supposedly meant to fix. The Greek debt raised from 115% in 2009 to 175% today, notwithstanding the harsh austerity measures that have been imposed on the country in the attempts to reduce it. It is a vicious circle/cycle. Still, this can be observed not only in Greece, but also in other EU countries. As long as the Troika, notably the European Union, continues to handle things as it has been doing up until now, then obviously we are facing a deadlock and there is no way out of the current situation. But times are changing.

And so are ideas. It is high time that the EU rethinks its policy towards Greece and the other countries that have experienced severe economic recessions. In this sense, this 25 January could be seen as both Greece’s European moment and Europe’s Greek moment, as the Greek historian Antonis Liakos said recently.1 Multiple questions arise as Greece prepares for these general elections, whose results may have an impact not only on its own future, but on the future of Europe. What is the exact nature and legal basis for the Troika? Is it an international organization? Who is it accountable to? Is there any way to hold it responsible for the disastrous impact that its policies have had on human rights and society? And if not, as it is the case, how is it possible that the European legal system tolerates a non accountable entity, that operates outside all the rules and obligations that the EU and its member states are bound to under their own constitutional, European and international law? Is this setting compatible with those obligations, particularly the EU Charter for Fundamental Rights and EU and member states’ human rights obligations under international law? All these questions are pertinent today and my hope is that the Greek elections will channel them, as they are crucial for the whole European construction. After all, it is all about ‘which Europe we want’.

This is what is mainly at stake today. If we are happy with what we have, we may well continue but I am sure then that there is not much time left for Europe. So, a prudent way for us and the future generations is to try and change things in order to save the whole idea of togetherness in Europe. One last word: it is not only a matter that concerns the new Greek parliament nor the Greek Government; It is a matter that concerns the Greek people who need to be present also after the elections. In the end, it is a matter of popular sovereignty. 

Read the FIDH/HLHR report ‘Downgrading rights: the cost of austerity in Greece’.

Read also the press release that accompanied the report: Greece: Reports unveils human rights violations stemming from austerity policy’.

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